Letter From Menongue: Waiting For The Chopper


A missive from the Angolan highlands by Staff Writer Thalefang Charles, who has spent days waiting for a helicopter on a National Geographic (NatGeo) expedition at the remote headwaters of the Okavango River

Seven. The number of days waiting to get a confirmation on the military helicopter that would transport us to the river to meet the rest of the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project (NGOWP) team exploring the headwaters of the Cuando River at the Angolan highlands.

Angola moves at her own pace. Patience is an important trait that her travellers must possess in abundance if they want to survive her pace because one needs to master the waiting game to get any plans done here.

The NGOWP Regional Director, John Hilton who has (almost) mastered to deal with the Angolan frustrating bureaucracy says, “My motto here has always been, ‘Plan’. But there is no plan”. That is how he managed to successfully drive the NGOWP in Angola.

Hilton understands the Angolan heartbeat. He has learnt to make plans that come with two other alternative plans because in Angola things happen at their own pace and when they choose to.

I was supposed to arrive here in Menongue, in the Cuando Cubango Province on Friday morning from Luanda - the capital city, but we could not leave until Saturday because of flight problems. On the day of departure on Saturday morning at Luanda’s 4-de Fevereiro International Airport, after doing all the checking-ins, the man at the departure terminal check-ins counter announced (in Portuguese) that our flight is cancelled. We only learnt later that despite having been issued with boarding passes and our luggage already checked-in, there was no flight. Our translator told us (unsurprised whatsoever) that the flight would only be available the following day.

Saturday finally arrived and we flew with Taag – Angola’s state-owned national airline – from Luanda to Menongue. My main activity in Menongue was to wait for the military helicopter that was scheduled to transport the NGOWP team to their exploration base camp at the source of the Cuanavale River.

NatGeo had sent a team of scientists, adventurers, photographers and wildlife guides at the headwaters of the Okavango River basin to explore the area. The team has been exploring the sources of the many rivers that are tributaries of the Okavango Delta in Angola for the past three years. This year the team is exploring the Cuando and Cuembo Rivers by mekoro from where they begin all the way to Linyanti in Botswana. Initially a helicopter was scheduled to pick the media team including Yours Truly up from early in the week on Tuesday, but it never did. Hilton had to change the travel plans for the rest of the Angola media team members by putting them on a Benguela Train from Kuito, Bie to Munhango where they drove all day to the base camp. After sending out part of the team by train, Hilton and I had to wait for the new schedule for the chopper so that I would get a chance to photograph the aerial landscape. The waiting game continued but with promising developments, especially after the NGOWP leader, Steve Boyes arrived from Luanda with Adjany Coasta - NGOWP Angola director and Kaya Ensor - from NatGeo in Washington DC. It was confirmed that the chopper was going to arrive on Wednesday. But Wednesday came and passed still with no chopper in sight.  On Thursday things got desperate as the delay messed up my entire returning flight schedule to Gaborone. I had to leave Menogue by Friday morning if I was to catch my flight to Gaborone on Saturday. But by the afternoon new better promising news on the chopper arrived saying that it will land in the morning of Friday. Costly flight changes were done so that I could get a chance to do my aerials and meet the expedition team at the river before my return. Friday, Day Seven of waiting, turned out to be yet another long frustrating day in Angola. We waited, patiently, with our entire luggage in hand, hopeful, only to be told that the chopper finally left Luanda late in the morning.

At 4pm the big old Russian-made military Mil Mi-8 helicopter landed at the Menongue military airstrip where we were waiting. But our excitement was short-lived as the army generals said that it is late to fly to Cuanavale River and the only possible date would be Sunday since they had an operation with South African war veterans who were coming to explore their old battlefields on Saturday. The Cuando Cubango province is infamously regarded as the area where the Cold War and Apartheid ended. It was here that the MPLA’s forces assisted by ANC, Cuba, and Russia, finally defeated the rebel UNITA assisted by the South African apartheid regime and US.

The army generals who arrived with the chopper we were waiting for, for seven days, burst our bubble after the arrival of the old Russian chopper that we patiently waited on and we left the airport with heavily despaired long faces. Our main fixer in Angola, Gime Sebastiao could not fix this one, but he was still encouraging us to be patient because, “this is Angolan style man”.

That evening as we were just stocking up on Cuca Pretas (local beer) with plans to drink our sorrows down so that we could live through another two nights of waiting, the generals sent word that they could actually fly us out on Saturday morning instead of Sunday. It was the greatest news, but in Angola things only happen when they happen. So in the meantime, we are waiting. Just as Ensor said, “Waiting is a sport here”, so the ‘waiting game’ continues.

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